Tunisia’s second coming

Six months after Tunisia’s first free elections, the country’s newspapers are filled with nostalgic longing for its former dictator. Even if his rule was a “veritable one-man-show”, muses La Presse, “was his dictatorship really harmful to Tunisia?” The accompanying hagiography leaves you in little doubt that this is meant as a question to which the answer is “no”. But there is no call for the dictator himself to be reinstalled. That is because the object of their affection is not the recently ousted President Ben Ali, but his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, and he died 12 years ago.

At a time when the fundamental basis of the Tunisian state is up for grabs, the invocation of the dead president’s spirit is telling. There is a section of society — perhaps of a certain age — that remains faithful to the memory of Bourguiba as the father of a modern, secular Tunisia. The fact that he was also an autocrat who persecuted the political Islamists now leading Tunisia’s transitional government is not without significance. The tensions between the forces of secularism and the religious right have come to define the post-revolutionary era.

It is important that Tunisians are able to have these debates in public. “Tunisia was almost destroyed by two things, and they both begin with C,” says Afef Abrougui, Index on Censorship’s Tunisian reporter, “corruption and censorship.” Decades of state censorship have left the profession of journalism in a poor state of repair. Nevertheless, the sharp and occasionally shrill criticism of the present government, in print and online, is an obvious sign of progress. Artists and musicians are able to think aloud about politics without the police politique taking front row seats. Whatever the theatrical merits of Facebook!, a sort of cyber-Brechtian dance interpretation of the 2011 protests on show at the Centre Culturel de Carthage, its singular virtue must be that it can be shown at all.

In spite of these advances, there are some worrying noises. In March of this year, some drama students chose to celebrate World Theatre Day by performing on the steps of the Theatre Municipal, the grand art nouveau building in the middle of Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis. At the other end of the street, a group of over-exuberant Salafists decided to put on their own piece of street theatre. As the denouement of their demonstration in favour of a religious constitution, a few of their number decided to clamber up the 120-foot high, wrought-iron clock tower at the end of the street, planting the black flag of the Caliphate at its summit. Their mission accomplished, they made their way down the road and set upon the students, noisily denouncing their “lack of respect for religious sanctity”, and raining down bottles on their heads.

When anyone feels the need to stage a counter-demonstration against theatre, it is time to sit up and pay attention. The craven response of the Interior Ministry, however, was to prohibit demonstrations on Avenue Habib Bourguiba altogether (the ban was subsequently lifted after several violent confrontations between police and protestors). Parts of the street are now semi-militarised zones; government buildings and public spaces are wreathed in barbed-wire. Groups of bored-looking military police sit in canary-yellow buses, waiting for something to happen.

Like Avenue Habib Bourguiba, there are still some areas of free expression that are only entered at acute personal risk. This month, Nabil Karoui, the general director of Nessma TV, was prosecuted and fined for “violating sacred values”. His offence was allowing the animated film Persepolis to be shown on his station (it depicts Allah as an old man with a white beard). The two imams who called for his death are yet to be punished.

A sentence of 7 ½ years imprisonment for two young men who published a satire of the prophet Mohammed was endorsed by President Moncef Marzouki. “Attacks on the sacred symbols of Islam”, he said, “cannot be considered part of freedom of expression.” The literal-minded censorship of the sacred has been accompanied by an equally disturbing increase in private prosecutions for obscenity. Earlier this year, the publisher of the national newspaper Attounissia was charged with “disrupting public order and decency” for printing a picture of a Lena Gercke, girlfriend of  Real Madrid footballer Sami Khedira, on its front page. All these prosecutions have been brought under provisions of the Ben Ali-era criminal code, which remain on the statute book.

This creeping moral and religious censorship adds to the impression of a state slouching towards authoritarianism. In the name of national unity, the transitional government has time and again shown itself quick to curtail, and be slow to defend, the right of Tunisians to free expression. In the political turf war that is taking place in the country, there is a real danger that the forces of reaction will be permitted to mark out the boundaries of free speech in a way that imperils the advances of 2011.

Michael Parker is a London-based lawyer and writer on international and legal affairs.